Peter Espeut | Road deaths and ganja
The latest statistics show that there has been an increase in the number of persons killed in vehicular crashes since the start of the year compared to the same period last year. Road fatalities have been on the decline since breathalysers were introduced in 2005. What has caused this recent spike in road fatalities? We don't really know for sure, but we can speculate.
The highest number of fatalities (29 per cent) are motorcyclists, probably the most vulnerable group of road users. Balancing on only two wheels, they are susceptible to skidding on wet and oily surfaces and when sand and silt cover the tarmac. We have a law requiring all motorcyclists and pillion riders to wear helmets, but I don't know if even half of these road users are compliant.
And on top of that, many of these bobbing-and-weaving motorcyclists are some of the most undisciplined users of the road. Many have only learner's licences, even after 20 years on the road.
If on any day I can observe dozens of unhelmeted motorcyclists and pillion riders, I must assume that the police see them, too. Why no zero-tolerance for them? It is likely that the number of road fatalities would decline if this law were properly enforced.
No one should be issued with a learner's licence (for any vehicle) without first passing an eye test and the road code test.
Another vulnerable group of road users are pedal cyclists, but unlike all advanced countries, Jamaica has no law requiring pedal cyclists to wear helmets. The time has come for Jamaica to step up in this area. Injuries resulting from falling off a bicycle and hitting one's head will be reduced if helmets are worn. It's the civilised thing to do!
I mentioned above that road fatalities have been on the decline since breathalysers were introduced in 2005, supporting the hypothesis that many road deaths are caused by motorists under the influence. This was a positive step towards reducing road fatalities.
Alcohol in our system will burn off at a constant rate of about one hour for each drink. So if you go to a party or other function and have two drinks, if you go on the road two hours after drinking, you should pass the breathalyser test. Sensible people can plan safe recreation, but sadly, not everyone is sensible.
By 2007, only 20 of the 200 instruments acquired by the police at the inception of the breathalyser programme were functional, and in that year, they acquired 20 new machines. How many of those 40 machines from nine years ago are now working? Have any new ones been acquired? How many are still functional? We need some answers here. DUI (alcohol) could again be a cause of the increase in road fatalities.
But there is another possibility. In 2015, in a fit of populism, the possession and use of ganja was partially decriminalised in Jamaica. This was done with indecent haste by the previous government without thinking carefully through the implications.
Because ganja is a psychoactive drug that gives a euphoric 'high', it is used by many as a source of personal pleasure. If one uses ganja at home and then goes to sleep, that would be one thing; but to smoke ganja and then get behind the steering wheel of a car or a truck or a minibus filled with passengers is downright dangerous!
I am told that ganja causes a general change in perception, a decrease in short-term memory, and impaired motor skills. People should not be allowed to drive under the influence (DUI) of ganja, but we have no law to that effect. Since the possession and use of ganja was illegal, DUI (ganja) was also illegal. The law partially decriminalising the use of ganja was passed with such indecent haste (I wonder who gave the campaign contribution with that quid pro quo) that it is not an offence to DUI (ganja).
SMOKING AND DRIVING
In the not-too-distant past, I have been a passenger in taxis and minibuses where the drivers are actually smoking ganja as they weave through the traffic. In my view, it is a reasonable hypothesis that the upsurge in road deaths could be due, in part, to DUI (ganja).
I take note that the minister of foreign affairs, at an international forum, has called for ganja to be delisted as a dangerous drug. I question the scientific basis for this suggestion.
Drivers involved in motor vehicle accidents should be tested for recent use of ganja, and autopsies on crash victims should include similar tests. If ganja is a significant cause of road deaths in Jamaica, its decriminalisation is probably ill-conceived.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist. Email feedback to email@example.com.